Not Needing or Wanting, but Doing!

A friend relapsed last week — really sad! He’s burned a lot of bridges over the forty years of his addiction. He doesn’t have many chances left. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, fatal disease and it will kill him.

He doesn’t want to die! So why doesn’t he quit? There is no cure for addiction but it can be kept in remission if — and this is a very big “if” — a person abstains from their chemical of choice. Even the best treatment centers in the world have surprisingly high relapse rates. My friend has been to a good number of these centers over the years.

His ex-wife called it quits years ago. His kids, siblings and parents have made it very clear they “just can’t do this any more.” Friends have moved on and no longer call. It’s all very frustrating. I’m ready to throw in the towel too!

A friend much wiser in AA than me listened when I needed someone to commiserate. Arlo admits having “hit a very low bottom” himself and knows of what he speaks. I needed what he had to share. It’s so shockingly simple. Still many never get-it because they live in the delusion that “the cure” is a matter on not taking your next drink — though necessary that’s just abstinence, not recovery!

Arlo retold a story that is bed-rock wisdom passed from one to another in the life-saving fellowship called Alcoholics Anonymous. He grabbed my attention when he contradicted what I assumed to be common-sense. He said, “Most people think the Twelve Steps are primarily for those who need them — they’re not!”

Recovering my composure a bit and marshaling my intellect, I thought I understood Arlo’s point. That presumption was quickly dashed when he continued, “In fact, most people think the Twelve Steps are for people who want them — they’re not!” That was my best answer. Now I’m confused; what’s he getting at?

Arlo explained with a down-to-earth example I could understand. “Say you want to lose twenty pounds. Say you need to lose twenty pounds. You go out and get your bike tuned up, buy new running shows, even buy a membership at a fitness center. You really want to lose those twenty pounds!”

We can want all we want. Fact is we’ve got to log some actual butt-time on that bike, put some miles on those new shoes and build up some sweat at the gym! As my mother used to say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!”

Arlo drove home the zinger, “The Twelve Steps are for those relatively few folks who do them, actually live the Steps.” Abstinence is simply the prerequisite to get the chronic, progressive, fatal addiction into remission. Recovery happens when we are intent on actually living the spiritual truths of the Twelve Steps.

Too many of us remain obsessed with the drinking part of alcoholism — the addiction still has us in its grip! That seems to be what happened with my friend. He remained fixated on not drinking. As essential as that is, it’s really not the solution!

Only when attention is turned to our character defects, making amends where needed, actually putting our spirituality into practice, and being of service to others do we get our lives back!

Millions need what the Twelve Steps offer. A high percentage of these — even those who attend Twelve Step meetings — want what they offer. Still relapse is all too common, too often tragic.

Yes, I’ve heard the AA truth about our need to “walk our talk.” I’ve even judged others by whether they practice what they preach. When it comes to any spiritual practice “Just say NO!” is insufficient — futile, self-defeating in fact.

“Just do it!” seems to be the wisdom hardest for most of us to understand and put into practice.  Seems to be the hardest part of any spirituality we profess.

Suffer? Good God!

Odds are high you won’t read this post. When you discover the topic you will likely stop and hit “delete.” None of us want to face it. None of us like it. All of us wish it would disappear — but it won’t.

So we stifle it, ignore it in every way we can, pretend it isn’t lurking over our shoulder. Some of us even resort to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and anesthetize its pain.

(Now would be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to persevere to the end.)

We are going to Germany for two-weeks at the end of September. My maternal grandmother was an Irish girl from South Boston but the rest of my heritage is German. Not far below the surface throughout what we expect to be a wonderful trip will be a nagging question: How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so corrupt that it perpetrated the horrendous evil of the Holocaust?

We all wrestle with suffering — especially when it is unmerited and random. Why do some children endure such violence and misfortune when others do not? Why does Beau Biden die of brain cancer at age 46? Tornados destroy entire communities and sometimes randomly kill neighbors. None of this makes sense!

I’ve wrestled with the topic of suffering but more often than not simply ignore it and distract myself with my privileged life and bask in my own relative good fortune. Yet the reality nags, taunts and festers at the edges of my consciousness.

Maybe this explains why so many of us shun public transportation. A simple bus ride across downtown Minneapolis exposes a human side of life we would rather ignore or deny — like choosing not to read this post any further and summarily hitting “delete”.  But, don’t!

Last week the New York Times offered a rare but really well thought-out op-ed [link] on the topic of suffering. Titled The Value of Suffering, author Pico Iyer will appeal even to the many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Too often faith-leaders retreat into conspicuous silence on the question of how any could possibly profess the existence of a good God in the face of such unmerited and seemingly unmitigated suffering. A rare exception is Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who courageously wrestled with the challenge the horrific Asian tsunami presented to Christian assertion of God’s benevolence. [link]

What gives me courage to finally take on this bedeviling topic, though it regularly gnaws at the edges of my consciousness, was a post today on Richard Rohr’s blog. [link]

His is not the final word — if by that we mean some rational explanation that dismisses all questions or doubt. However, it’s about as good as it gets. Rohr gets about as close as anyone to expressing our “truth” in a way that thinking-people will comprehend.

If you have persevered this far, I certainly hope you are curious enough to check-out the links to the New York Times and Rowan Williams articles above. Even if you choose not to check out these other sites, rest assured it doesn’t get much better than this from Richard Rohr:

Both [saints] Francis and Clare … let go of all fear of suffering; all need for power, prestige and possessions; any need for their small self to be important; and came to know something essential–who they really were in God and thus who they really were. Their house was then built on “bedrock,” as Jesus says (Matthew 7:24).

Such an ability to really change and heal people is often the fruit of suffering, and various forms of poverty, since the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death. If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (which is my definition), then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments, because we can share our power with God’s power (Romans 8:28).

Such a counterintuitive insight surely explains why these two medieval dropouts–Francis and Clare–tried to invite us all into their happy run downward, to that place of “poverty” where all humanity finally dwells anyway. They voluntarily leapt into the very fire from which most of us are trying to escape, with total trust that Jesus’ way of the cross could not, and would not, be wrong. They trusted that his way was the way of solidarity and communion with the larger world, which is indeed passing away and dying. By God’s grace, they could trust the eventual passing of all things, and where it was passing to. They did not wait for liberation later–after death–but grasped it here and now.

Two Addicts Try to Talk

“Stop that, Richard! Just stop it!”

Caught completely off guard, I stammered, “What? Stop what?”  Bob had just offered to give me jar of homemade plum preserves.

“When someone offers you something don’t hem-haw around. Don’t play this false humility crap, ‘Oh, I couldn’t…’ or insult me with ‘You shouldn’t…’  When I offer you something, say yes or no. Say, ‘No thank you.’ or ‘Thank you very much.’ Cut the bullsh*t, Richard! Say what you mean for god-sake.”

We had been driving down Lake Street and Bob got us talking about food by recalling what a perfect blueberry pie he’d had the night before — “all blueberries, none of this gelatin sh*t.” We retrieved some mutual ground by agreeing that we shared a special passion for raspberry pie as well as plum preserves.

No sooner had we fed the parking meter and entered Global Market when Bob was back at me.  Bright booths representing crafts from Tibet, Chile, Central America, Scandinavia as well as all sorts of locally produced organic meats, cheeses and fresh fruits and vegetables populated the Market.  An overdose of vibrant colors and distinctive  aromas danced all around.

We shared our delight and personal preferences.  I expressed disappointment that some of the shops were shuttered.

“D*mn it, Richard. Don’t do that!”

“What? Don’t do what?” I blurted defensively.

“Stop looking at the negative! That’s not going to do you any good. Stop commenting about the shops that are closed. Look at all that’s going on, not at what isn’t!  Look at the great stuff inside even if the shops are closed.”

One thing we did not see at Global Market was a good piece of raspberry pie. Here was my opportunity to reclaim some semblance of balance and equanimity after Bob’s piercing — though fair — admonitions!

“I know just the place — Turtle Bread!   We just had raspberry pie there last Sunday. Terrific… the best!” Off we went with nearly two hours left on our prepaid parking meter.

We hadn’t even placed our order when I know I’d scored big time. “Love this place, so much better than the bland, uniform, generically orchestrated Stabucks or Caribou. This place has life, character, personality, distinction.” I relished Bob’s approval.

He continued, “Look around, this is the world! I don’t even feel sorry for those two guys in their white shirts and ties — at least they have the good sense to come to a place like this!”

Though I’ve known Bob for a while now, each time we are together reveals something beguiling and compelling.

I knew about his 70-plus years of struggle with drug addiction. Today’s revelation was his five years in federal prison associated with his drug use.  The transparency of his sharing knocked me off-balance once again.  Of course, I blurted out something totally inept.

“Wow, I’ve never been in prison. So, what was that like?” This time Bob entertained my stupidity and awkwardness but seemed to shift to a wholly different psychic space.

“You learn to mind your own business! You keep your mouth shut. You see trouble, you turn and walk the other direction.”

Ouch! Now, I felt tables turned. Just as he had admonished me about expressing gratitude with a clear yes of no, or had chastened me to celebrate the manifest beauty all around, I wanted to blurt out, “Bob, don’t do that! Stop that!”

I restrained my urge to tell him that is no way to live. This will wait for another time.  However, I returned with a whole new insight into why Bob would be so appreciative of all the Global Market symbolized and for the depth of human connection he savored at Turtle Bread.

We began as two men entering conversation best as we are able. Two men, though with very different addictions, backgrounds, spiritualities and perspectives made an effort to talk — community happens, understanding deepens, appreciation expands.

We discover we are vastly more alike than we had ever presumed or allowed ourselves to imagine.  Still, we each have much to learn that only someone other than ourselves can teach.

Hurry-Up and Slow-Down

“McDonalds ruined us!” No, this isn’t a comment from a Wait Watchers meeting or a cardiac rehab training. It was made by a friend lamenting how we have become people who want what we want, the way we want it, when we want it… now!

Others have certainly copied what McDonalds pioneered. Fast-food has clearly become a more apt symbol of our impatient consumer culture than holiday dinner at Grandma’s house.

Patience — or my lack thereof — recurred throughout the past weekend. Planting a 10′ Heritage Oak tree yesterday I grieved that I would not live long enough to see this tree in its maturity. Why do some things have to take so long?

Yet, I tried to envision those yet unknown who would someday relax under the shade of a mighty oak. I mustered some satisfaction that tree planting is a blessing we can confer on generations yet unborn. Still, I want the tree to hurry-up and grow!

Patience also surfaced as an important theme at a reunion on Saturday. I had been privileged to assist with a retreat in April for eight men who were in various stages of recovery and had experienced homelessness as part of their experience with addiction. No one, absolutely no one, understands the demands of patience like these men.

Those who struggle with chronic relapse — and isn’t that all of us honest enough to admit we are not perfect — know in our bones how desperately difficult being patient can be.  If we cannot dispense with them quickly, our well engrained cultural habit is just to ignore our faults or deny we have a problem.  More honest than most of us, these men wrestle with excruciating demands of patience every day.

Coincidentally — providentially? — one of the other reunion planners had selected the following by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for our opening meditation. Don’t be put off by the length, its worth the read:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

One of the men on retreat said it better and much more simply. Noting what technology has popularized far beyond what McDonalds pioneered, he said in only 15 words what the renown Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin needed 164 words to say:

We’re the microwave generation. But we all know food tastes much better from the slow cooker!

Despite our dependence on fast-food and the latest kitchen technology, I am consoled to believe that most of us would still prefer Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house.  Now, there’s hope for recovery!

Progress = Perfection

Okay, I admit it… I deliberately laid a trap to see if I would catch him in dishonesty — let’s not even call it a lie. I was speaking with a dear friend in a life and death struggle with alcoholism. My trap? A simple question: “Are you drinking?”

Honesty carries fresh urgency these days. Denial, deception, white-lies and half-truths abound. We all do it! Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton got off so easy in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. We identified with his squirming machinations. Remember his emphatic assertion: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”? We’ve all spouted such half-truths.

We only wish we were as verbally dexterous as the ex-President. What he said was technically correct, but was it honest? If by “sexual relations” we mean sexual intercourse, Mr Clinton is telling the truth. That’s what he wanted us to believe. If “sexual relations” means a range of intimate sexual activity the President’s nose surpassed Pinocchio. And, we all saw his nose grow exponentially!

We all saw it because we all do it. Perfect honesty seems impractical if not impossible. We practice denial and indulge deception telling half-truths. We further deceive ourselves if we let ourselves off the hook just because perfection is beyond our reach or ability. What’s needed is not perfection but progress!

The other thing that’s needed is to set for ourselves a very high bar of personal accountability. My 45 y/o nephew just completed the Boston Marathon. He was uncompromising in pursuit of his bucket-list goal! Extenuating circumstances like rain, wind and temps in the 40s conspired such that he missed his desired time by 8 minutes.

Perfection was out of reach. Post-run photos suggest it wasn’t even pretty! Yet, Dean finished his marathon in 3 hours and 38 minutes and deserves all the accolades that are rightfully his. There was no Clintonian duplicity in his performance, no mincing of words, just raw foot-to-the-pavement pursuit of an illusive goal.

Dean may have completed the Boston Marathon, but Dean is far from finished. As if taking a page from Step 12 of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am confident the point of Dean’s exploit is to take the principles learned in “finishing Boston” and to apply them in all his endeavors. Such persistent progress, not perfection, is a worthy goal for all of us!

The snare I laid for my friend was not meant to be deceptive or a cynical trap. Rather, it was a well-intentioned question about his progress.  Just as finishing the Boston Marathon is a momentous indicator of one’s enduring practices and principles. So too is plain and simple honesty within each of our lives, especially when it isn’t easy or even pretty!

For as every alcoholic knows, it’s ultimately not about the alcohol. It’s about the much fuller, all in-composing “spiritual awakening” that restores us to living once again. Let’s be honest, it’s about taking the wisdom we learn from running our own hellish marathon and applying the lessons consistently across the board.

That sets a pretty high bar. Today I am grateful to both my nephew and my dear friend for showing me that goals can be achieved. In life, persistent hard-earned progress equals perfection!


Jeb the Dog joined twelve men on retreat this weekend. Because it was held at Dunrovin Retreat Center on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river, Jeb thought he’d gone to heaven.  The rest of us looked at ways we create hell here below with an eye to our way out.

This was all part of the Ignatian Spirituality Project that offers retreats to those who have experienced homelessness at some point and are “in recovery” from some type of addition. As all who work a Twelve-Step program know, it makes no difference whether you are there as part of the staff or a participant.  We are all in this together, all of us recovering from one thing or another, all seeking a more authentic way of being human.

One simple acronym — FRED — got to the core of what our time together was all about.  It stands for Fear, Resentment, Ego and Dishonesty. Pay attention to FRED and we will be well on our way to a spirituality of “some earthly good”.

FEAR — What “secret” festers in the recesses of our awareness such that its exposure would destroy us (or at least we are paralyzed by the prospect that it would)? Find a safe place to tell your story out loud to at least one other caring person.

RESENTMENT — People fail us, betray us, deeply hurt us. As one of the men said this weekend, “My resentment toward [——-] has had me by the balls for 50 years!” Let go of it! This may take time, bit by bit. Let it go — don’t give anyone this kind of emotional power over your life.

EGO — Many of us wear masks and try to project a picture-perfect image to the world. Take it from me, this is exhausting! We balk at being called “selfish” all the while our unbridled “control-center” bullies us and everyone within its reach. Try being honest, vulnerable, transparent, “real” — we find ourselves in good company (perhaps for the first time, our own!).

DISHONESTY — We may call them half-truths or “white lies” but we all tell them. We repeat stories so often they take on a reality of their own. We rationalize our behavior until it becomes acceptable, at least to ourselves.  Denial and deception hang out in the same neighborhood with dishonesty!  Yes, privacy and discretion have their place — not everyone deserves the whole truth, except ourselves. No one deserves a half-truth, most of all ourselves. Get real!

We don’t need to have experienced homelessness, at least in a literal sense, to recognize our need to get to know FRED better.  We don’t need to have gone through treatment for drug or alcohol addiction but it helps!

Being in recovery is not just about abstinence from drugs or alcohol.  It’s an honest admission that fear, resentment, ego and dishonesty too often have us by the balls.  Folks in recovery are just honest enough to admit this universal truth and are willing to work on it.

Rarely am I among more grateful, genuine and unpretentious men as I was this weekend. We would all be blessed to be more like them.